Purple Haze

The Jimi Hendrix Experience

Song Review by William Ruhlmann

"Purple Haze" was an early signature song for Jimi Hendrix and remains his best-known composition. After years as a journeyman musician, the 23-year-old Hendrix was taken to England in September 1966 by his new manager, Chas Chandler, who helped him put together Jimi Hendrix Experience, a power trio. The group released its first British single, Dino Valenti's "Hey Joe," on December 16, and it became a Top Ten hit. According to Chandler, he heard Hendrix playing the riff that became the basis of the music for "Purple Haze" that month and encouraged him to finish writing it for the Experience's second single. Hendrix is said to have completed the composition at a club on December 26. Originally, the lyrics were a long poem headed "Purple Haze -- Jesus Saves", from which Hendrix extracted the three verses used in the song. Some accounts have said that he was on LSD when he wrote the lyrics, but Chandler disputed that. Nevertheless, the words, while nominally referring to a mental disorder caused by a spell put on the narrator by a girl, are easily interpretable as being about a drug experience. Whatever the cause, the narrator is disoriented and upset. But the lyrics are less important than the relentlessly driving, if relatively slow-paced underlying music, which provides a good platform for some of Hendrix's inventive guitar playing. Jimi Hendrix Experience recorded "Purple Haze" on January 11, 1967, and it was released by the newly formed Track Records on March 17, after "Hey Joe" had run its course. It entered the British charts a week later, to peak in the Top Five. Having consolidated their U.K. success, Jimi Hendrix Experience signed to the Reprise subsidiary of Warner Bros. Records in the U.S. Hendrix returned to his native country in June and appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival on June 18; the following day, Reprise released "Purple Haze" as the Experience's debut single in America. The record's unusual sound made it a tough sell, but in late August it finally reached the charts, though it failed to enter the Top 40. In August, Reprise released a revised version of the Experience's debut LP, Are You Experienced?, which, in Britain, had not contained "Purple Haze." The Reprise version put "Purple Haze" on as side one, track one. The album reached the Top Five, eventually selling over two million copies. Jimi Hendrix Experience performed "Purple Haze" in its concerts regularly, resulting in numerous live recordings, most of them issued after Hendrix's early death. But his performance of the song at the Woodstock Festival in August 1969 was featured in the Woodstock movie and on its accompanying LP in 1970, shortly before he died. In addition, according to Harry Shapiro and Caesar Glebbeek in Jimi Hendrix: Electric Gypsy (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990), "Purple Haze" has had more cover recordings than any other Jimi Hendrix composition, 40 by their count (and many more since their book was published). These include one by Dion that was released as a single and made the charts in 1969 and another by the Cure, included on Stone Free: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix, that earned considerable airplay in 1993, plus versions by Frank Marino & Mahogany Rush, Winger, Doug Sahm, Frank Zappa, Melanie, Tangerine Dream, Paul Rodgers, and Ozzy Osbourne. It has also been surprisingly popular with classical performers, frequently used as an encore by the Kronos Quartet and also attracting recordings by Meridian Arts Ensemble, Hampton String Quartet, and Nigel Kennedy.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Are You Experienced? 1967 MCA 2:50
Smash Hits 1969 Experience Hendrix / Legacy 2:51
Jimi Hendrix Experience [Signal] 1987 Signal
Classic Rock: Rock Renaissance 1989
Various Artists
Time / Life Music 2:51
The Ultimate Experience 1993 MCA 2:44
The Experience Collection 1994 MCA
The Jimi Hendrix Experience: BBC Sessions 1998 Experience Hendrix 3:17
The Ultimate Grammy Box: From the Recording Academy's Collection 1999
Various Artists
Sony Music Distribution 2:53
Back to Black: 1900-1999 2001
Various Artists
Universal International 2:48
Red House 2005 Pazzazz 3:04
BBC Sessions 2010 Experience Hendrix / Sony Music 3:18
Groove Maker 2011 Pazzazz 3:04
Playlist: The Very Best of the Jimi Hendrix Experience 2013 Experience Hendrix / Legacy / SMG / Sony Legacy 2:51